December 20, 2004

Two New Wi-Fi Detectors Reviewed

An exclusive LawTech Guru feature review by Jeffrey Beard

Whether you're traveling the globe or working within a wireless office, it's handy to know where to find the Wi-Fi hot spots. With the proper precautions, wireless networking adds a considerable amount of convenience and bandwidth when on the go. I recently had the opportunity to use two of the newest Wi-Fi detector/locators: The WiFi Seeker from Chrysalis Development (around $30 retail), and the HWL1 802.11b/g WiFi Locator from Hawking Technology (between $30-$35 retail). They both work on the same basic principle: Push the button to scan the area for a usable Wi-Fi networking signal. Both display the resulting signal strength as a series of lights, much like the signal indicator on one's cell phone. Neither will tell you if the detected network is open or secured, nor provide the network name, so the rest is up to you. Despite these limitations, it's very handy to find a hot spot without first having to boot up your laptop.

The WiFi Seeker has some nice things going for it. It's the smallest WiFi detector on the market by far, about the size of a regular car or other keychain-sized remote, and you can attach your keys on its ring. It fits comfortably in your pocket and barely takes up any room in a crowded laptop bag. It claims to filter out extraneous 2.4GHz signals from cordless phones, microwaves, and other non-WiFi devices. It also claims to pick out the Wireless Access Point (WAP) and ignores other wireless network client devices, such as other wireless cards in "Ad Hoc" mode. It's also extremely quick at signal detection, usually only needing between a half and a full second to complete its scan when a good signal is present. Once in a while, it would take between 1 - 2 seconds, which is still plenty fast. While I would have liked to see at least a five-segment LED signal meter for better differentiation, the four LEDs work nicely.

In actual practice, I found the WiFi Seeker lived up to all of its claims. It successfully found Wi-Fi networks with ease. Its signal strength meter reported consistent and accurate results. Occasionally, in good areas it would initially lock on with 3 bars, and light the fourth within a second. In exceptionally strong areas, all four LEDs would immediately light up at once. The WiFi Seeker works well directionally. By pointing it in different directions, the varying signal strengths enabled me to figure out which way to walk toward a stronger signal.

The WiFi Seeker successfully ignored other Wi-Fi client cards, as well as a Uniden 2.4GHz cordless phone and a microwave oven. (Only if you placed it within a few inches of an operating microwave oven would it generate a false positive -- which I don't see as any failure in everyday use.) The visual interface works well: Four bright, large red LEDs sweep back and forth during scanning, and become solid when a Wi-Fi signal has been detected. It's drop dead easy to use and read. The large square button is easy to find and press without looking for it. (If you've ever watched the KITT car on Knight Rider, or have seen a Cylon from the original Battlestar Galactica TV show, you'll appreciate the WiFi Seekers' cool visual sweeping pattern during its short scan. It's simple yet effective.)

In comparison, the Hawking Technology HWL1 802.11b/g WiFi Locator also boasts some interesting features per its web site: "The signal filters on the HWL1, filter through all unwanted 2.4GHz signals, such as BlueTooth, cordless phones and microwaves, providing a reliable and accurate reading each and every time." "The HWL1 is also equipped with a flip-open Hi-Gain Directional Antenna that helps you determine exactly where the hot-spot source is coming from."

Styled and sized like a flip cell phone or Captain Kirk's communicator, the HWL1 is 3.6 inches long and fairly thick, so it occupies a good amount of room in your pocket or laptop bag, style notwithstanding. Basically, it's between 2-3 times in width and height, and twice as thick as the WiFi Seeker. In other words, it's really big in comparison. On the bright side, this allows it to have a much larger high gain antenna, and it easily sports five very bright blue lights for its signal meter. While the power button is very small, you only need to press it briefly to start the scan cycle. This provides immediate feedback by having the blue lights blink approximately twice per second for nearly 5 seconds. If you want a longer scan, you can hold the button down longer, and it will continue to scan until you let go.

Overall, it worked fairly well. However, since it was released after the WiFi Seeker, I expected the HWL1 to excel in some way that never materialized. While it mostly does what it says, I found several annoyances, and one glaring functional problem. First, the annoyances: The signal lights do not stay solid, and they tend to jump around a lot between blinks, which makes it rather difficult to determine the signal strength. For example, while holding it rock steady, the HWL1 WiFi Locator's lights would often jump between two, three, and four lights during its scan cycle. From my end-user perspective, this shouldn't be happening when the Wi-Fi signal is constant and the WiFi Locator is stationary. At times, the directional antenna would help me find the Wi-Fi source, but just as likely, the lights would jump around so much it was nearly impossible to tell which direction had the better signal.

The HWL1 WiFi Locator also seemed to be more sensitive than the WiFi Seeker overall, which is both good and bad. On the plus side, the HWL1 might help you find more Wi-Fi access points than the WiFi Seeker, but they would likely be the weaker signals. Thus those signals may not be strong enough to be usable by your Wi-Fi card. In comparison, the WiFi Seeker from Chrysalis Development appeared more discriminating, which from my perspective increases the likelihood of it detecting a usable signal. With that said, if you're really desperate for any Wi-Fi signal, then the HWL1 may detect it, or it may also send you on a wild goose chase.

Which brings me to the one glaring problem I had with the HWL1: In a family member's home devoid of any Wi-Fi signals, the HWL1 lit up the full five bars. The only wireless signals present were being generated by a Uniden 2.4GHz cordless phone set (my laptop and its Wi-Fi card were powered down at the time). In the same house, the WiFi Seeker did not detect any signal, so it properly distinguished the cordless phone from an 802.11b/g signal. I then confirmed there were no rogue neighbor Wi-Fi signals via my laptop's wireless networking utility and running NetStumbler. As the HWL1 also registered a higher signal in the same room as the cordless phone, I felt I had ample reason to conclude the HWL1 was fooled by its 2.4GHz signal.

The flip-up antenna is also a drawback when you're toting baggage -- it takes two hands to open it, unless you prefer doing the one-handed Kirk-style communicator flip with your wrist. Unlike the WiFi Seeker, whose large power button is conveniently accessible on the outside, you must open up the HWL1 to access the power button to do your scan. Overall I was just less impressed by this device. On the plus side, it does detect 802.11b/g networks, but the jumpy signal lights effectively canceled out any advantage the larger directional antenna provided, if any.

After using both, the smaller WiFi Seeker was the better device in my experience; sometimes good things do come in small packages. If the HWL1's larger high gain antenna made any significant difference, then I could see some value associated with its chunkier size -- but it didn't. In comparison, the WiFi Seeker appears more discriminating, and it works well directionally. It was also consistently easy to read its results. Therefore, it's fun to use, and I can be more discreet using it than the larger HWL1. Overall, I've been very satisfied by the WiFi Seeker's size and performance, and can easily recommend it if you're looking for a good tool to make your mobile life just a little easier. Incidentally, the WiFi Seeker is also branded as the WiFi Spy, PCTEL WiFi Seeker, and the Mobile Edge WiFi Signal Locator.

Topic(s):   Feature Articles  |  Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard